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GOP ‘debate’: Awful on almost every level

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney listening to Texas Gov. Rick Perry during Wednesday night's debate.
REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney listening to Texas Gov. Rick Perry during Wednesday night’s debate.

Apologies in advance for the cynicism and crankiness that I fear is about to pour forth as I contemplate the big Repub debate of last night.

The “debate”  was awful on almost every level, although its problems are so deeply rooted in the current U.S. political culture and the current norms of TV journalism that it seems almost pointless to blame either the candidates or the moderators.

It’s not a debate. The candidates don’t really disagree on much, at least not much they will acknowledge. There’s a set of 10 or 20 things you have to assert to have any chance of winning the Repub nomination this year. If at some point in your previous career you believed something different, the moderators and the other candidates will try to put you on the spot. Your challenge is to tap dance away from that past “error” without looking too embarrassingly like that’s what you are doing.

The biggest of these — and it will continue all year — is the sin of Romneycare. Former Gov. Mitt Romney has to continue to apologize for it without seeming to, even though he left behind a state with one of the lowest rates of uninsurance in the country. Texas has one of the worst uninsured rates but this is because Gov. Rick Perry apparently loves freedom more than Romney does.

There’s too many of them to call this a debate. The punditocracy has decided it’s a two-person race, which may be correct at the moment (although it’s a very recent development, and we have only the polls to tell us it’s true, even at the moment). Nonetheless, the debate was all about Romney and Perry, even when the moderators were forced to throw a question to the other candidates, it was often designed to shed light on the Romney-Perry contest.

The questions stink. The moderators waste a lot of words trying to set up a question that will put the candidate on the spot. (John Harris seemed much worse than Brian Williams on this score last night.) But the candidates find it hilariously easy to slip away to what they want to say. In fact, there is a new freedom to ignore the question or insult the question. Newt Gingrich has broken through in each of the last two debates by directly attacking the questioners’ motives and repudiating their efforts to get Republicans to disagree with one another (even suggesting that they must be trying to help President Obama). See “It’s not a debate.”

The answers are too short. Also too long. The new norm seems to be one-minute answers and 30-second follow-ups. Even though this was a long debate (almost two hours), the format did away with the old tradition of allowing a long opening and closing statement. Those were always boring and repetitive anyway. Is there a way out of this problem via format-reform? I’m skeptical but we need to keep trying.

The facts don’t matter. Candidates make many factual assertions. Many of them are technically defensible without being truly accurate. Moderator Williams said that Texas has one of the lowest high school graduation rates in the country. Perry replied that the rate has risen during his tenure as governor and is now the highest it’s ever been. Let’s assume that both of these are technically defensible. What have we learned?

Texas has led the nation in job creation over recent years (this is beyond dispute, although the reasons for that and the quality of the jobs is much-disputed) but still ranks in the middle of the states in unemployment. What have we learned? Perry said that Romney’s predecessor as Massachusetts governor, Michael Dukakis, created more jobs than Romney did. Romney said that Perry’s predecessor (yes, George W. Bush) created more Texas jobs than Perry has. The AP fact check says both are true. It would be stupid enough — especially for Republicans who think government can’t create jobs — to assume that every new job in a state is an accomplishment of the sitting governor. But comparing job numbers across two different periods when the national economy was doing very different things is even stupider.

Rep. Michele Bachmann speaking during Wednesday night's debate at the Reagan Library.
REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni
Rep. Michele Bachmann speaking during Wednesday night’s debate at the Reagan Library.

The spin matters more. It’s hilarious enough that there is a room set up for the aftermath of all such debates that’s actually called “the spin room” where representatives of the candidates engage in the form of soft lying that we politely call “spin.” The after-debate analysis on MSNBC actually interviewed Ed Rollins from the spin room. Rollins works for the Michele Bachmann campaign (although he recently dropped from campaign manager to something much lower). The analysts asked Rollins to rebut the suddenly overwhelming conventional wisdom that Bachmann’s brief status as a top-tier candidate is over, as reflected in the recent polling and now confirmed by her relatively invisible performance in the debate. Rollins said she did fine, didn’t get many questions (because she has now been declared less than top-tier) but sounded smart in her answers.

By the low standards on which we grade these things, especially in the Bachmann case, I think I agree with Rollins. But it doesn’t matter, unless Bachmann sees an uptick in her polling numbers or is able to engineer a magic moment in some future debate. (Hint: The magic moments of debates have very little to do with sounding smart.)

The history nerd strikes. By the way, the first televised presidential debate, Kennedy-Nixon in 1960, was much more substantive and was carried by all the networks. (There was no cable back then, so if you had your TV on, you had to watch the debate.) But the spin-room and post-debate analysis hadn’t been invented yet. Viewers had all night to reach their own conclusions about what they had seen and heard before they could read some analysis in the next morning’s paper. The debate ended in the middle of prime time and the networks went back to regular programming. On one channel that was “Celebrity Bowling.”

The magic moment. There wasn’t one last night, but we’re pretending there was. Historically, these magic moments are always kinda stupid. What was so brilliant about Ronald Reagan saying to Jimmy Carter, “There you go again”? The first President Bush got clobbered in one debate because, when he thought the camera was on someone else, he glanced at his watch. Walter Mondale scorched his chief rival for the 1984 nomination by asking Gary Hart, “Where’s the beef?” — which was the gag line from a Wendy’s hamburger commercial that Mondale later confessed he had never seen.

Last night didn’t have one that will go down in history, but based on the post-debate analysis I heard, we’ve decided that Gov. Perry’s decision to repeat his “Ponzi scheme” metaphor for Social Security was the big moment. Some analysts thought this will kill him with older voters. Some thought it will reassure his base that he stands tall and doesn’t run away from controversy. If you listen carefully, Perry is trying to contain the problem. A true Ponzi scheme is a criminal enterprise, a swindle. Perry isn’t saying that about Social Security. He’s saying that anyone who tells today’s young payroll taxpayers that everything is fine with Social Security and that their future benefits are guaranteed without adjustment is wrong. Actually he says that’s a “monstrous lie,” which is way over the top. And by the way, no one is saying that.

But it’s true that there is a substantial long-term sustainability issue with Social Security. Something will have to change. Perry’s general impulse for such problems, which is to turn them over to the states, would be crazy in the Social Security context. I’m not sure he’s even proposing that. I’m not sure he’s proposing anything. Herman Cain came out for full privatization along the Chilean model. But I’m not sure anyone else put a proposal on the table last night. Isn’t that what a debate like this should be for?

Update: This post was updated to reflect that it was Herman Cain who backed the Chilean model for privatization of Social Security. Hat tip to alert reader/commenter David Mindeman.

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Comments (39)

  1. Submitted by Dan Emerson on 09/08/2011 - 10:43 am.

    Bachman is toast. dry white toast.

  2. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 09/08/2011 - 10:58 am.

    You know what is especially ironic?

    Candidates who spend most of their days talking about what government can’t do and how government cant’t create jobs…

    …AND THEN…

    …spend a good portion of the debate arguing about who’s government created more jobs, made education better, etc, etc.

    The fact is that there need to be a dogged pursuit of answers by the questioners.

    Each of these people on the stage HAS to be able to go on for at least 10 or 15 minutes on any plausible topic, full of BS or facts–or be able to deflect the topic to a more favorable one. It’s the nature of the game and the people involved.

    Divide two hours by 6 people and moderator(s), add in intro’s and farewells, and each candidate has probably under 15 total minutes of substantive talking. If a presidential candidate can’t produce 15 minutes of BS, they’re not a worthy politician.

    It’s mostly a waste of time.

  3. Submitted by Colin on 09/08/2011 - 11:30 am.

    Eric–Thank you for the breakdown. The task is not pointless. Fruitless? Maybe. Is the BS inherent plain enough that a 8th-grader could call it out? Probably. Is it the job and responsibility of the news media to evaluate such events critically? Undoubtedly. Please keep it up, even if it’s lonely.

  4. Submitted by chuck holtman on 09/08/2011 - 11:51 am.

    Perry’s reference to Social Security as a Ponzi scheme is revealing, again, through the ever-reliable lens of psychological projection. Government is all about establishing commitments and then respecting them over time. This is one reason why government is superior to the private sector in the realm of social insurance. Perry’s statement simply reveals that he and his fellow travelers are fully prepared to savage the broadest mutual commitments of our society in pursuit of private ideological or financial interest. As is well established, with minor tweaks (e.g., raising the cap) Social Security is secure indefinitely and with a minimally responsible Congress would remain so.

  5. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 09/08/2011 - 12:02 pm.

    Your report confirms for me, Eric, what I assumed was going to be the case about this so-called “debate.” Thanks for watching and suffering through this and reporting on it so I didn’t have to.

  6. Submitted by David Mindeman on 09/08/2011 - 12:31 pm.

    Actually it was Herman Cain who proposed the Chilean model, for what he calls “personalization” of Social Security.

  7. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 09/08/2011 - 12:58 pm.

    It’s NOT a debate in the formal sense; winners are not selected on the basis of points tallied by impartial judges following a system.
    It’s simply a series of political speeches — of course the participants says what they’ve prepared to say, whatever the actual questions.

  8. Submitted by Rosalind Kohls on 09/08/2011 - 12:59 pm.

    There were way too many candidates for a debate-type of forum to work. MSNBC should have waited until the field narrowed to four candidates at the most, so there could be some back-and-forth discussion. Last night’s forum was more of a question-and-answer panel, not a debate.
    The way the questions were asked was peculiar too. It seemed whenever it was time to change the subject, the moderators went to Santorum. And what was the purpose of having Telemundo ask the questions about illegal immigrants?

  9. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 09/08/2011 - 01:09 pm.

    Wow, Eric. I can do nothing but concur. On everything you said.

  10. Submitted by Barb Heideman on 09/08/2011 - 01:29 pm.

    I agree that this “debate” was stupid and wish that the questioners would ride harder on the candidates. However, I doubt that any candidate would ever agree to a format that actually IS a debate–too much to lose, little to gain. As to whether these are a waste of time, I’m not sure. At least we get some insight about the candidates when we see what they chose to discuss OTHER than the question. God help us…

  11. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 09/08/2011 - 01:41 pm.

    The only benefit party debates like this offer up is an opportunity for young people or apolitical people to get an idea of that party’s principles and positions on the issues.

    Based on the myths and stereotypes people are regularly fed regarding what the different parties stand for, some youngsters would probably be shocked that a black man is running for president as a republican, for example, or that the libertarian Ron Paul is actually a pro-life physician.

  12. Submitted by Steve Marchese on 09/08/2011 - 01:52 pm.

    Thank you. My hope is that people will watch these extended infomercials masquerading as debates and see them for the sham that they and the candidates are.

    I’m also not surprised that Bachmann has begun to fade. Her rise was mercurial and based on a combination of emotion and fantasy. She only could last as long as she was the “flavor of the month”. Beyond that, there is little, if any substance to differentiate her from the following “flavor”, this being Rick Perry.

    My advice: settle in to watch how this race develops over the long haul. We are months away from a nomination, let alone Election Day. Until then, it’s as “real” as a reality TV show.

  13. Submitted by Barbara Miller on 09/08/2011 - 02:06 pm.

    Bless your for this, Eric. I trust your take on the debacle. Me? I tuned in the Twins, put ’em on mute, listened to Dvorak and Brahms and read a book. Blood pressure down a notch.

  14. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 09/08/2011 - 02:32 pm.

    To me the most revealing moment of the “debate” was when the crowd gave their biggest cheers of the night when Perry said that his state had executed more than 200 people under his governorship. Could there be a more craven example of the hyper-hypocrisy of this supposed “pro-life” crowd? The blood was practically dripping from Perry’s lips.

  15. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 09/08/2011 - 02:43 pm.

    From the US Security and Exchange Commission:

    “A Ponzi scheme is an investment fraud that involves the payment of purported returns to existing investors from funds contributed by new investors.”

    “With little or no legitimate earnings, the schemes require a consistent flow of money from new investors to continue. Ponzi schemes tend to collapse when it becomes difficult to recruit new investors or when a large number of investors ask to cash out.”

    Please educate me as to how Social Security doesn’t meet either of these criteria.

  16. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 09/08/2011 - 03:11 pm.

    First of all, SS is NOT an investment! It is a government program. Second, it never predicted to “collapse” – it has enough money to pay promised returns for another 25 years, and even if nothing is done it will pay out most of the expected benefits even after that. Third, it can easily be made whole why making the rich pay SS tax on earnings over $106,000 a year. Fourth – no one can ask to “cash out” – you can only collect your expected benefits when you reach retirement age. Fifth – Ponzi schemes are CRIMES. Once again, SS is a government program.

  17. Submitted by Jeff Klein on 09/08/2011 - 03:15 pm.

    “With little or no legitimate earnings”

    Are you aware of payroll taxes? Educate yourself.

  18. Submitted by James Blum on 09/08/2011 - 03:51 pm.

    Thanks, Rob Levine for responding to the troll. Nicely handled!

  19. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 09/08/2011 - 04:09 pm.

    Always good to see Mr. Swift entering the discussion. I’ll do my best to provide the requested education.

    Social Security doesn’t meet the first criteria for two reasons I can think of right away, Mr. Swift.

    Reason one: there’s no fraud involved. There’s nothing secret about Social Security, and you’re entered into the system when you’re born. You and your employer contribute to a retirement account in your name. When you retire, you get that money back. The Social Security Administration provides you with regular notices of the status of your account, potential benefits if / when you retire, etc. I’ve seen no evidence that the SSA has reneged on its commitment to any significant number of retirees or other beneficiaries. Benefits are relatively modest, and the reason is that many people’s contributions, even when matched by their employers are fairly modest, in large part because there’s currently a cap on the amount of income subject to the relevant tax. Social Security is not, nor was it intended to be, a system whereby Joe the Plumber can retire in luxury to a mansion in the Florida Keys strictly on his Social Security income.

    Reason two: investors are people who hope to profit from providing funds to an enterprise, either private or (I can almost hear you shuddering) public. Only in a very narrow and technical sense are SS beneficiaries “investors.” The whole system is essentially a commitment from one generation to another. I understand that the concept of “community” and “commitment” makes you nervous, but every retirement system ever invented – save the ones based on winning PowerBall or accumulating the fortune of a hedge fund manager – operates in essentially the same way.

    As for the second quote, unless you get to run the government – a prospect that so far, at least, does not keep me awake at night – there should be no difficulty in “recruiting” new investors. Social Security is established law. The SCOTUS has already ruled it constitutional. Funding is primarily based on a payroll tax, so participation is not optional, therefore “new investors” are, in fact, becoming part of the system continually.

    The fly in the ointment at this point has to do with the prospect, as boomers retire, of large numbers of “investors” cashing out. This includes, by the way, not just retirees, but a sizable number of people who collect disability and other, similar benefits from the system. As Eric and many, many others in print, television, radio and the web have pointed out – correctly – over the past several years, there are numerous ways for Congress to address potential shortfalls without destroying either the system itself or the incomes of those contributing to it. Most of the solutions involve fairly modest changes to the system, which remains essentially sound.

  20. Submitted by Joe Musich on 09/08/2011 - 04:18 pm.

    What no mention of the Freddie Mercury send up – Galileo Galileo oh the Fandango of it! Global comedy change at work.

  21. Submitted by Marcia Brekke on 09/08/2011 - 04:35 pm.

    Since Republicans are so incensed whenever the government “gives” any money to virtually anyone (unless they are very well-to-do, in the form of tax breaks), how about the government acquiesces to the Repub philosophy and refuses to give, loan, whatever, to any governor or leader’s state that is against government spending.

    Wonder what the voters in those states would do with their votes in the next election.

  22. Submitted by Joe Musich on 09/08/2011 - 04:37 pm.

    Well what no mention of the mercurying of perry ? Galileo Galileo reference ! Oh the Fandango of it all. Global climate change follies.

  23. Submitted by Mark Viste on 09/08/2011 - 04:40 pm.

    I think your assessment — that social security has a long-term sustainability issue and something must change — is misleading in the context of the usual discussion on the topic. As I understand, in most detail from Dean Baker, social security projected income falls short of projected expenses such that, if projections are correct, there will be a period in which only about 80% of benefits will be available to disburse. Because the payment projections are indexed, the actual value of the 80% payment will nevertheless be higher than the current payments.

    So if nothing is done, payments will be decreased for a while. The program will continue to exist.

    There is only a solvency issue if temporarily paying out 80% of benefits is intolerable. Since most of the discussion of “solutions” accepts a reduction of benefits, the usual discussion is about political repackaging. It is not about a response to an actual financial problem.

  24. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 09/08/2011 - 07:18 pm.

    I couldn’t help but chuckle when Huntsman made his comment regarding pledges and politicians.
    Huntsman was the only one on stage I could actually envision as a President, but I don’t see how he can make it through the primaries.

  25. Submitted by Diane Clare on 09/08/2011 - 08:32 pm.

    Is this an opinion piece, editorial, or real journalism?

  26. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 09/08/2011 - 08:38 pm.

    There were 31 wage earners for every SS recipient when the program started. There are now 3 wage earners working to make the payments for each recipient and soon that number will be 2.

    When the number becomes 1 wage earner per recipient, will you people then begin to see the relationship to it and a Ponzi scheme? How about two recipients per wage earner?

    The government doesn’t belong in the retirement plan business and given the 1-2% return, how many people do you think would opt out of SS if given the choice? But we’re not given the choice. We are mandated by the state to contribute to an actuarily fraudulent plan.

    The Left fears Rick Perry because one of their most reliable demographics, the young, may actually be swayed by what he has to say.

  27. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 09/08/2011 - 09:51 pm.

    “SS is NOT an investment! It is a government program.”

    “Ponzi schemes are CRIMES. SS is a government program.”


    That is the sort of pure gold I enjoy from leftist commentary; you just never know what they’ll come up with next!

  28. Submitted by Linda Kreutzer on 09/09/2011 - 06:43 am.

    If anyone paid attention, Eric twisted Cain’s Chilean comment to suggest it came from Ron Paul; not very professional or trustworthy journalism in my book. Why are you Eric and others afraid of common sense consistent Paul ? I enjoyed watching the debate overseas, a pity that Eric is an emotionalism seeker instead of a mature thinking adult to comment and weigh in on candidates’ proposed solutions. What is awful IMO is Eric’s opinion piece.

  29. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 09/09/2011 - 07:04 am.

    So we can use other countries models for privatization of retirement, but not for healthcare, huh?

  30. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 09/09/2011 - 07:44 am.

    Once again we see numerous comments from the factually challenged right, taking the little analogy of Social Security to an investment plan or scheme and presenting it as a fact. Failing to understand the difference between analogy and fact seems to be characteristic of the right, like not getting satire and lacking a sense of humor. But I see Kevin Drum at Mother Jones has sorted it out so the difference between analogy and fact should be perfectly clear:

    “Seniors today are all convinced that the money they paid into the program during their working years was somehow saved up for them and now they’re getting it back.

    “But that’s always been a lie. Social Security is actually a much simpler program than that. I’m going to put the rest of this paragraph in bold so you can’t possibly miss it. Here’s how Social Security works: every month we take in taxes from working people and every month we turn around and distribute those taxes to retirees. That’s it. That’s how it works, and everyone who actually knows anything about the program knows that’s how it works. Taxes come in, benefits go out. And the key to solvency is simple: making sure that those taxes and benefits are in balance.

    This is, of course, the way every government program works. Taxes come in, payments to soldiers go out. Taxes come in, payments to NASA rocket scientists go out. Easy!

    See? There is no Ponzi scheme because there is no investment scheme.

  31. Submitted by Linda Kreutzer on 09/09/2011 - 07:59 am.

    Ron Paul Takes First in Debate Poll, Despite Debate’s Perry vs. Romney Focus

    Read more:

  32. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 09/09/2011 - 08:00 am.

    Let me make it simple for Mr. Swift:

    The way Social Security works:

    Current workers pay into SS through payroll taxes.

    Current retirees are paid their benefits now from the money received from current workers payroll taxes.

    The system is roughly in balance now, at approximately 4.5% of GDP–income from taxes equaling outflows to retirees.

    The projected size of the system is expected to rise to 6% of GDP by 2030.

    Relatively small adjustments in taxes and benefits will address the growth in program size.

    And SS will continue on.

    Hardly like Bernie Madoff, where virtually everyone ended up with nothing.

    It is interesting that the push is to have people put all of their eggs into the private financial markets which HAVE brought us Ponzi schemes, gold coin “investments”, CDO’s, CD0^2, CDS’s, flash crashes, robo-signing, Lloyd “names”, high-frequency trading, day trading, etc., etc., etc., all while stripping regulatory enforcement power from government inspectors.

  33. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 09/09/2011 - 09:42 am.

    So, from leftist intelligentsia we’ve learned that he differences between a Ponzi scheme and Social Security is what we call it, who is doing it and how long it continues unabated.

    Oh, and government programs are NOT investments 😉

    Perhaps I’ll just let the Bard finish our lesson:

  34. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 09/09/2011 - 05:59 pm.

    Social Security is a Ponzi scheme in the sense that a Ponzi scheme is in the long run unsustainable. As a society shifts an ever increasing share of its resources to caring for the elderly, productive investments which create wealth will shrink, and then the wealth itself will shrink. As soon as the wealth is insufficient to continue to pay out the promised benefits, the Ponzi scheme has to collapse.

  35. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 09/10/2011 - 01:41 pm.

    One difference between a Ponzi scam and SS I’ll aver is that people voluntarily involve themselves in the former, but are forced to participate in the latter.

  36. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 09/10/2011 - 07:27 pm.

    I keep forgetting that right-wingers live in their own self-created reality where words like “wealth”, “sustainable”, “Ponzi scheme”, “roses” and “beauty” have their own special meaning to them.

  37. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 09/10/2011 - 08:38 pm.

    But of course no one is suggesting that the Social Security system remain unchanged.
    The only question is what sort of change, and for whose benefit.
    Once again, I hear the hoof beats of straw horses.

  38. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 09/11/2011 - 09:37 am.

    Countries that invest the surpluses of their workers in the old are in decline. Those that invest those surpluses in the young will thrive. When we sacrifice education and infrastructure to pay old age pensions and medical bills, we place ourselves inexorably on a downward spiral. Capable young people will not raise their children in a society that sacrifices the future children for the comforts of the aged. The good ones will leave, and the poor ones will refuse to work hard.

    Does this mean we abandon the aged, put them out on an iceflow to die out of our sight? No. It means that we must make difficult choices to treat maladies with public dollars when those treatments result in additional healthy, productive years of life, rather than a few months of painfully delayed decline towards death. It means that the elderly should be expected to work, albeit with fewer hours in less demanding positions, until death is fairly close at hand. Retirement cannot be a state-subsidized 20 year vacation in the sun if we are to progress as a society. If the baby boomers want to break with their established pattern of self-absorption and actually do something worthy, they’ll embrace limiting the transfers of wealth to the elderly, focusing on the children instead. I’ll not be holding my breath waiting for this to happen.

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